The treachery of the lites Elite sense of irresponsibility

The rich used to have to care about the society they lived in. Now they don't, argues Christopher Lasch
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONCE IT was the "revolt of the masses" that was held to threaten social order and the civilising traditions of Western culture. In our time, however, the chief threat comes from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses.

When Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote The Revolt of the Masses, first translated into English in 1932, he could not have foreseen such an outcome. From Ortega's point of view, one that was widely shared at the time, the value of cultural lites lay in their willingness to assume responsibility for the exacting standards without which civilisation is impossible. "Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us - by obligations, not by rights," Ortega wrote. The mass man, on the other hand, had no use for obligations, "no feeling for great historical duties". At once resentful and self-satisfied, he rejected "everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select". He was "incapable of submitting to direction of any kind". Lacking any comprehension of the fragility of civilisation or the tragic character of history, he was concerned only with his own well-being. It was, above all, the "deadly hatred of all that is not itself" that characterised the mass mind, as Ortega described it. Incapable of wonder or respect, the mass man was the "spoiled child of human history".

All these habits of mind are now more characteristic of the upper levels of society - the top 20 per cent of the income structure - than of the lower or middle levels. It can hardly be said that ordinary people today look forward to a world of "limitless possibility". Any sense that the masses are riding the wave of history has long since departed. The radical movements that disturbed the peace of the 20th century have failed one by one, and no successors have appeared on the horizon.

The upper-middle class, the heart of the new professional and managerial lites, is defined, apart from its rapidly rising income, not so much by its ideology as by a way of life - prosperous, gaudy, glamorous, sometimes indecently lavish - that distinguishes it, more and more unmistakably, from the rest of the population. Its livelihood rests not so much on the ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise. Even its feminism - its commitment to the two-career family - is a matter more of practical necessity than of political conviction. Its prosperity derives in large part from the emerging marital pattern inelegantly known as assortative mating - the tendency of men to marry women who can be relied on to bring in income more or less equivalent to their own. Doctors used to marry nurses, lawyers and executives their secretaries. Now upper-middle-class men tend to marry women of their own class, business or professional associates with lucrative careers of their own. "What if the $60,000 lawyer marries another $60,000 lawyer," Mickey Kaus asks in his book The End of Equality, "and the $20,000 clerk marries a $20,000 clerk? Then the difference between their incomes suddenly becomes the difference between $120,000 and $40,000."

Further, the markets on which the fortunes of the new lites rely are tied to enterprises that operate across international boundaries.Their loyalties - if the term is not itself anachronistic - are international rather than national or local. They have more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of people in their own country who are not yet plugged into the network of global communications.

To an alarming extent the privileged classes in America - by an expansive definition, the top 20 per cent - have made themselves independent not only of crumbling industrial cities but of public services in general. They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies by enrolling in company-supported plans, and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence against them. In effect, they have removed themselves from the common life. It is not just that they see no point in paying for public services they no longer use. Many of them have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense, or implicated in America's destiny for better or worse. Their ties to an international culture of work and leisure - of business, entertainment, information and "information retrieval" - make many of them deeply indifferent to the prospect of American national decline. In Los Angeles the business and professional classes now see their city as the "gateway" to the Pacific Rim. Even if the rest of the country is on the verge of collapse, they say, the West Coast "just can't stop growing no matter what", in the words of Tom Lieser, an economist at Security Pacific.

The same tendencies are at work all over the world. In Europe referenda on unification have revealed a deep and widening gap between the political classes and the more humble members of society, who fear that the European Union will be dominated by bureaucrats and technicians devoid of any feelings of national identity or allegiance. A Europe governed from Brussels, in their view, will be less and less amenable to popular control. The international language of money will speak more loudly than local dialects. Such fears underlie the reassertion of ethnic particularism in Europe, while the decline of the nation state weakens the only authority capable of holding ethnic rivalries in check. The revival of tribalism, in turn, reinforces a reactive cosmopolitanism among lites.

Robert Reich, the US Secretary for Labor, provides one of the most penetrating accounts of the "darker side of cosmopolitanism". Without national attachments, he reminds us, people have little inclination to make sacrifices or to accept responsibility for their actions. "We learn to feel responsible for others because we share with them a common history ... a common culture ... a common fate." The de-nationalisation of business enter- prise tends to produce a class who see themselves as "world citizens, but without accepting ... any of the obligations that citizenship in a polity normally implies."

The cosmopolitanism of the favoured few, because it is uninformed by the practice of citizenship, turns out to be a higher form of parochialism. Instead of supporting public services, the new lites put their money into the improvement of self-enclosed enclaves. They gladly pay for private and suburban schools, private police, and private systems of garbage collection; but they have managed to relieve themselves, to a remarkable extent, of the obligation to contribute to the national treasury.

The world of the late 20th century presents a curious spectacle. On the one hand, it is now united, through the agency of the market, as it never was before. Capital and labour flow freely across political boundaries that seem increasingly artificial and unenforceable. Popular culture follows in their wake. On the other hand, tribal loyalties have seldom been so aggressively promoted. Religious and ethnic warfare breaks out in one country after another: in India and Sri Lanka; in large parts of Africa; in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.

It is the weakening of the nation state that underlies both these developments - the movement toward unification and the seemingly contradictory movement toward fragmentation. The state can no longer contain ethnic conflicts, nor, on the other hand, can it contain the forces leading to globalisation. Ideologically, nationalism comes under attack from both sides: from advocates of ethnic and racial particularism but also from those who argue that the only hope of peace lies in the internationalisation of everything from weights and measures to the artistic imagination.

The decline of nations is closely linked, in turn, to the global decline of the middle class. Ever since the 16th and 17th centuries, the fortunes of the nation state have been bound up with those of its trading and manufacturing classes. The founders of modern nations, whether they were exponents of royal privilege like Louis XIV or republicans like Washington and Lafayette, turned to this class for support in their struggle against the feudal nobility. A large part of the appeal of nationalism lay in the state's ability to establish a common market within its boundaries, to enforce a uniform system of justice, and to extend citizenship both to petty proprietors and rich merchants, alike excluded from power under the old regime.

The middle class understandably became the most patriotic, not to say jingoistic and militaristic, element in society. But the unattractive features of middle-class nationalism should not obscure its positive contributions in the form of a highly developed sense of place and a respect for historical continuity - hallmarks of the middle-class sensibility that can be appreciated more fully now that the middle-class culture is everywhere in retreat. Whatever its faults, middle-class nationalism provided a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference without which society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions, as the Founding Fathers of America understood so well - a war of all against all.